September 20, 2016
It’s hard to believe that more than 4 years have passed since the Curiosity rover (a.k.a. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory) dropped onto the broad floor of Gale crater and began its marathon exploration of Mars. Although the craft’s “primary mission” spanned only 23 months, the hope has always been that this durable, plutonium-powered rover would last far longer — perhaps 10 years or more.
The desire for longevity has to do with getting Curiosity as far as possible up the slopes of Aeolis Mons (“Mount Sharp”) in Gale’s center and, in doing so, to decipher an ever longer portion of Martian history as told in the exposures of rock laid down over time from its base to its summit.
Curiosity is only now reaching the lowermost slopes of Mount Sharp, but it’s kept busy with imaging and sampling studies along its path. Most recently it spent time in Murray Buttes, a cluster of small, steep-sided knobs amid a dune field at the base of the mountain. They were named to honor the late Bruce Murray, a renowned Caltech planetary geologist (for whom I worked during my Caltech days).
The buttes, it turns out, are eroded remnants of ancient sandstone beds. They’re much younger than Mount Sharp itself, created when the Red Planet’s winds brought in layer after layer of fine sand.
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